I laughed because I needed lots of help.
We all know that details make our writing more vivid, but what do you do when you just can’t recall what color that car was or why you decided to go to grad school? Here were some things that helped stir my memory when I was writing Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope, published by She Writes Press in March:
1. A few years ago, during a summer visit to my best friend from college, I dug through the junk in her basement to find the box of letters I had written from my two and a half years in a Botswana village. At home, I dug out my old journals and made them my bedtime reading for months. It was shocking how many things I had totally forgotten, from the boyfriend dilemmas that had seem so important at the time to that trip to Zambia I almost took. Every once in a while there would be a nugget that was perfect for the book, like the Botswana proverb that became the first chapter title: “A person is a person because of other people.”
2. Old photos were also helpful. An out-of-focus picture of me with a bucket of water on my head brought back the feeling of weight on my neck and the village girls who giggled when some of the water sloshed onto me. Coming back to the United States and transitioning to a less simple lifestyle was difficult, but pictures from those years helped me remember the joy of having a new baby—and all the contraptions people gave us to put her in.
3. An important turning point in my story occurs when I realize at forty-nine that I’m not living as simply as I’d like. I’d lost track of some of my youthful values and wanted to reclaim them. It was a confusing time. Within six weeks, I quit a job I’d had for eleven years, decided to go back to Africa for my fiftieth birthday, and dedicated myself to fighting climate change. In my first draft, these decisions seemed to come out of the blue, and the connection between them was confusing. To make the narrative more coherent, I went back through my electronic calendar and mapped out exactly what happened when. Getting the chronology right, not surprisingly, helped the story make sense.
4. Google also came in handy. Renewable starts with my first arrest for climate change activism, which happened to be with a bunch of famous people in front of the White House. So when I wanted to remember how embarrassed I felt when I realized I was chewing a chocolate chip Cliff bar in every photo of Daryl Hannah’s arrest, it wasn’t hard to bring up the image. (I'm the one in the purple coat.) The Internet was also handy for fact checking things I remembered, but not always accurately.
5. Asking friends to read parts of my draft helped me identify where my memory was fuzzy. For example, I fondly remembered watching the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper cross the night sky in Botswana, until a South African friend told me gently that you can’t see the Big Dipper from the Southern Hemisphere. I was sure he was wrong, but a Google search confirmed that it was actually Orion I’d been watching. As he pointed out, if I got that fact wrong, why should people believe me when I talk about the effects of climate change in Africa?
Of course, there are still going to be details of my own life that were never recorded, and a memoirist just has to do her best. I still recall the advice a writing teacher gave a class I was in twenty-two years ago: “If you are describing your first sexual experience in the back of a Chevy, and you can’t remember if the car was blue or green, just call it blue and focus on the emotional truth of the story.” In memoir, the details are there to bring the emotional truth to life, which is, in the end, is why we love to read each other's stories.